PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) – Rocco Mediate insisted he never lost faith in his ability to play golf, even while chronic back trouble turned him into an also-ran on the PGA Tour.

The pain is finally gone, and armed with a new swing and a fit, trim body, the 42-year-old went to the top of the leaderboard Thursday at the U.S. Open. His 3-under 67 in the first round at Pinehurst’s No. 2 course tied journeyman Olin Browne for the early lead.

“I expected to play well, but I don’t know if I expected to shoot that low of a score, but I knew it was in there,” Mediate said. “The beauty of it is you’ve got to keep doing it – there’s 54 holes left for me. It’s so hard out there, it’s so good, you can’t screw it up.”

He certainly didn’t do that, recovering from a few stray shots early to tie his best round ever at the Open. Mediate made the turn 1 under and jump-started his day with an eagle at the par-5 10th, the only one there among the morning starters.

After a drive down the middle of the fairway, he ripped a 3-wood onto the green and rolled in his putt from about 50 feet to move to 3-under.

“I think I vaguely remember that,” Mediate quipped while recounting his round. “I didn’t think I could really reach. I walked up there and it was right in the middle of the green. I’m trying to lag and make a 4, and it went right in the center.”

Of course, considering all his physical problems, everything appears to be falling his way these days. Last March, Mediate’s back locked up while he was home by himself, and after three hours of lying on a trophy case, he finally crawled upstairs and went to bed.

The discomfort stayed with him for more than a year before he was able to start working out again.

Mediate gained about 10 pounds through the ordeal – he constantly struggles with his weight and lost about 50 pounds five years ago following back surgery – and he was so discouraged at times that he considered quitting.

“I thought about do I want to do it again because it’s really hard,” Mediate said of overcoming the injury. “This is the sixth time I’ve done this in 12 years. I thought, Well, what the hell else am I going to do?’ So I gave it another shot.”

To get back on tour, he used his one-time exemption that goes to the top 50 all-time money winners, and he went to noted golf instructor Jimmy Ballard to retool his swing. He’s standing a bit taller at address, with a little wider stance, and he tries to move his entire spine during his backswing instead of tilting it as he used to.

The results have been mixed. Sure, he can play again, but he’s earned only about $125,000 in 11 events on tour, good for 176th on the money list.

Maybe a regular putter will help. Mediate ditched his broom handle a couple of weeks ago for the first time since 1991, and so far the results are spectacular.

“I kind of threw it in the fire quick here,” he said. “I wanted to get my hands on it again. It’s working well, maybe one of the best putting rounds I ever had.”

It was good enough Thursday to impress playing partner David Toms, who finished with a 70.

“He hit a couple of wayward drives early but recovered, and then he started hitting the fairways,” Toms said. “He eagled 10, so that was big. I told him he might get a skin there today, I thought it was a pretty good 3.”

Perhaps Mediate’s positive outlook toward this week helped. As one of the few players who relishes the opportunity to play a course set up by the USGA, he praised No. 2 and the demands it places on the players.

And he had some advice for anyone who doesn’t like it.

“They shouldn’t come and play then,” Mediate said with a smile. “I just like it because it’s the ultimate examination of your game. It’ll tell you immediately. There’s no maybes. It gives you what’s happening with what you’re trying to do.”

AP-ES-06-16-05 1542EDT

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